Rewind: The Cassette Makes A Comeback

Vinyl? It's played. The latest retro-audio fetish is the old-school tape.

Photo: Getty Images

Vinyl? It's played. The latest retro-audio fetish is the old-school tape.

Last year, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary announced it was dropping cassette player to make room for modern lingo like sexting. By 2009, sales of prerecorded cassettes had dropped below 40,000 (down from more than 400 million in 1990).

And yet somehow the maligned musical format has become relevant again. In July, Smashing Pumpkins released a cassette reproduction of the band's first demo. Popular indie artists like Dirty Projectors, Ariel Pink, and Of Montreal are putting out albums (even box sets) on tape. Though the majors had largely abandoned the cassette by 2003, the medium has spawned dozens of small labels (Living Tapes, The Tapeworm).

Influential record stores like Amoeba Music are expanding their cassette sections. And in January, filmmakers Seth Smoot and Zack Taylor raised enough Kickstarter financing to fund Cassette, a feature-length documentary about the history (and improbably vibrant future) of the analog format.

Clearly cassettes can put us in a state of emotional rewind. "We have nostalgia for a format that came out at a time when not as much content was thrown at you," says Annie Lin, 32, who cofounded the San Francisco Mixtape Society, which meets every few months to swap personal compilations.

In fact, you could think of the tape as a simpler time's social media—one that fulfilled the same impulse to curate and share that services like Spotify and Pinterest do today. It also played a pivotal role in the history of hip-hop. The tape is "rap's original mass medium," says Jared Ball, the author of I Mix What I Like!: A Mixtape Manifesto, which helps explain the ongoing popularity of digital "mixtapes."

Now the old-school analog versions are being appreciated precisely because they are homely little rectangles of plastic with magnetic tape you can actually watch moving and spools you can turn with your pinkie. "There's something very empowering about cassettes," Taylor says, "in an age where we understand less and less about how things work."

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—Courtney Balestier

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